A dozen years ago, Bob sat down at his word processor and rescued a Cambodian girl from the Southeast Asian jungles. Years later, he confronted his father for being such a bastard. Then he slit his sainted mother's throat over a mere lottery ticket. And, God help him, he even had a private investigator make jokes about Lowell, the city he grew up in.
But nothing worked for him, and furthermore, he whined to his friends about how hard it all was, how much goddamn time it took to write all these stories. Three years to do the research, read a dozen books about Cambodia, write drafts, read them to his writer's group, and revise, revise, revise. In his earliest drafts he editorialized, telling readers how awful it was that people maimed and tortured other people, just in case the descriptions of bloody stumps and rotting corpses didn't convey the right message. Then he struggled with the details, because he had never been closer to Phnom Penh than Anchorage. But he interviewed refugees near his home, took assiduous notes, and sat down at night to write new chapters, cranking out ten pages per week, always ignoring the little voice in his head that kept whispering, "But you've never been to Cambodia! How can you show what it was really like?" Besides, he thought that his characters always sounded like Americans.
Bob had never been a private investigator, either, but then neither had Sue Grafton, and look at what she did with Kinsey Millhone, sleuthing her way through the alphabet. Bob wondered if there was life after Z--or in his case, before A.
So look, he told his writer's group at their regular Friday night meeting, here's my idea. I'll do a funny P.I., okay? Based here in Lowell, right? That way the book practically researches itself. And get this: It's a guy. His fellow writers were beside themselves. Every two weeks, they would say, "Hey Bob, how's Mack coming along? God, is he funny!"
And how could Mack not be funny, living in an old mill city with rundown storefronts, men drinking Old Grand Dad out of paper bags, refugees by the thousands, and a network of canals for bodies to float in? With raw material like that, Mack could always come up with the quick one-liners that had Bob's friends laughing. Sometimes Bob even wrote a whole joke in less than an hour, and he would fall in love with the wit that looked so quick on the page. In the evening, at his keyboard, his writing would often slow to a stop as he read aloud to himself, caressing each fine word with his tongue.
Soon, however, his writer friends began to hound him with four-letter words--one four-letter word, actually. It was "Plot," and they always appended a question mark. Just when a series of chapters seemed to gather steam, Bob would always do something for laughs like insert a vicious dog, and his hero Mack would escape to the roof of a car and run away from the story line and into the arms of an Attractive Former Nun.
"Nice perfume," Mack tells the A.F.N. "My Sin?"
"You wish," she says. Ha-ha.
Bob tried plotting first, but like a horny man on his third marriage, he wandered. So I'll begin with the characters, he thought, that's what they always say to do. But he found it tough writing a bunch of character sketches and then retrofitting them with a plot.
Still, his friends cheered him on at every turn. You've gotta finish that Mack book, they all said. He is so damn funny! What's he trying to accomplish, again? Meanwhile, Bob went to two of Kathy and Dave's book signings, complimented Bev on writing a novel in a week ("because I could," she explained), read a ream-sized third draft by Judy, and heard that Patty fell out of bed one morning and wrote a twelve-page short story before breakfast.
Bob, of course, was not jealous, being of an age where acting like a gray-haired baby would make him look like--well, just that. So he resolved to get his act together, straighten up and fly right, and hunt down every cliché in the book in his quest to finally achieve his dream--a published novel--a book--in his lifetime. Something that would outlast him on this earth, and wasn't that the point of writing a book? A reader of a distant generation, hungry for the fruits of Bob's fertile imagination, would reach high on a library shelf filled with "S." This time, finally, the book would be in, its dust jacket torn from over-borrowing. She would brush her fingertips across the title, embossed in bold crimson lettering:
A mystery by Bob Sanchez
Bob began to despair for that gentle reader, and even more so for himself. He had started writing fiction so late in life, and each book took him so long to write. How could he ever finish just one novel that would find its way into the bookstores, dodge the remainder shelves, and sail into popular culture?
Then one day he resolved to write in earnest. It would still be a part-time endeavor, since he had a day job he could not give up. At work, fragments of story and snippets of clever dialogue drifted across his mind, but he was too busy to jot down those fleeting thoughts. In the evening, he came home and sat down to his wife's delicious home cooking, afterwards thinking to help clean the kitchen before watching the news. Then his brother called from New Jersey, just a social call that took twenty minutes. When Bob hung up he remembered to call his ailing mother, and then why not read at least one article in Time Magazine? He read for a few minutes, then snapped his fingers. He had completely forgotten to update his resume, and he had better not put that off any longer.
By the time he finished, it was almost nine o'clock, and his frustration increased. He wanted to be writing fiction, after all. It was a simple matter of clearing the decks--yes, he allowed himself that cliché--of clearing the decks to make the time to write.
Bob went upstairs and powered up his computer, which announced that he had not properly shut the system down the last time, and that now it had to scan the hard drive for errors. He could cancel that operation, but thought he'd better not. Who knew what evil lurked within his hard drive? The Internet was rife with viruses, and any one of them could have insinuated its way into one of his novel files.
The wall clock ticked away precious seconds, then minutes, as the operating system yawned and stretched, scratched its belly and inspected its navel, then checked to make sure it was properly accessorized; the printer beeped, the scanner hummed, and the CD-ROM drive opened its one green eye and reported for duty.
One by one, icons blipped onto Bob's computer desktop while an hourglass seemed to say, "Don't bother me. I'm busy." Finally, the system was ready, and Bob was ready to write. His eyes felt heavy, but there was work to do.
He was about to open his word processor when he noticed the little envelope icon that said he had mail. Well, this would take only a minute.
The first message was one of those obvious Internet hoaxes. Esteemed Friend, it began. Please help me. I am the nephew of deposed Swahilian President Ngumbe Ngumbe...we have $20,000,000 in a Swiss account and must move it to America, as my uncle has been falsely accused of genocide. May we shelter some of this money in your bank account, in exchange for a twenty percent commission? Bob thought this scam was worth warning his friends about, so he sent them all a short e-mail with the phony appeal attached.
That out of the way, he opened a message from his dear friend Kate with "Wonderful News!" in the subject line. She and Patty had collaborated on a screenplay, and Jodie Foster had just called, begging to bankroll the project if only she could be the star. "Please. It's the perfect vehicle to get my career back on track," Jodie had told Kate.
This was most welcome news to Bob, who loved his writing friends and found them all such a source of inspiration. He just had to congratulate Kate and Patty immediately, and maybe write a side note to Kathy, saying what a great group we have, huh? He would have to word all of these e-mails carefully, because writing was still a craft that deserved utmost respect, just as letter writing once had been in the days of Victrolas and buggy whips.
That got him to thinking. What was on the Internet about old-fashioned letter writing? He opened up his browser and called up the Google search engine, and--
He shook his head. Wait a minute, this was taking way too much of his time. At his age, Bob needed his sleep, and his bedtime loomed. Wandering the Internet would have to wait for another night. He would just read his last e-mail now, drag it to the recycle bin, and finally start writing.
He almost deleted that last message without opening it, because anything with the subject in all capital letters had to be bogus. It read,
Here was another joke to forward to his friends, he supposed. He opened the message and laughed out loud. "Your book practically writes itself!" the message crowed.
No talent was required, the e-mail explained; in fact, writing ability was a burden, and perfection was for losers. With a few simple principles, you could write that book fast, and have the agents lining up outside your door. To Bob it seemed like a crock, like "Lose 100 lbs. on a chocolate sundae diet," or "Rock-hard abs with no work." Such foolishness! He deleted the e-mail and finally got down to writing. He managed only one page that evening, but he felt it was a good one.
The next evening, the e-mail was back all by itself. Bob usually heard from his friends, and something felt strange about his getting the same junk e-mail two nights in a row, and nothing else. "WRITE A BOOK IN 14 DAYS." The thought did have a perverse appeal, he admitted to himself. Just out of curiosity, he checked his deleted e-mail folder and noticed that the file was no longer there. That was very odd indeed. The folder was supposed to act like a wastebasket, where garbage stayed until it was dumped. Puzzled, he returned to the In box and clicked on the message again, dragging and dropping it into the Deleted Mail folder. This time he managed two pages of fiction, and he went to bed tired but happy. He had written almost a hundred pages this year.
On the third night, he received the same e-mail and nothing else. Again, his deleted mail folder was empty, and the unwelcome solicitation had returned to his inbox. Alone. The date on the e-mail hadn't changed, either, so he wasn't receiving the mail over and over again. The original simply would not go away. He squirmed in his chair and imagined a headline in a grocery-store tabloid: EVIL EMAIL DEVOURS RIVALS.
Bob laughed and opened his word processor, and his story file displayed on the screen. He went to the end of the file to begin writing immediately. Tonight he wanted to avoid re-reading what he had already written; it was always pleasant to do, but a most inefficient use of his time.
Mack had bought Chantal (the Attractive Former Nun) a cup of coffee, and that's where Bob had left the story. Mack found Chantal attractive, and the feeling was mutual, but she was taking their friendship slowly--very slowly.
Bob's trouble was that he didn't recognize what he saw on the screen anymore. He paged up through the story, feeling confused and lost. So he ran a search for the phrase "mutual respect," because he knew that was in the last paragraph he'd written the previous night.
"Mutual respect, my ass," the A.F.N. said. "I'm meeting some guys back at my place tonight and we're snorting some coke and going to bed. Be a boring jerk all you want, Mack, but this bride of Christ is gonna party!"
Enraged, Mack slapped her and threw hot coffee in her face, which dripped and was dappled with coffee grounds. She screamed and slid out of the booth and onto the diner's floor. He kicked her aside on his way to the cash register.
"I'll pick up the check," he snarled.
Bob was stunned at the tripe he had written. But when did he write this? How could he? There were twenty more pages that he didn't recognize, and the heat rose in his face. He had worked so hard to make his hero Mack a likeable and decent man, flawed but honorable. Now Mack drove to Chantal's apartment and shot one of her boyfriends, cleaned out his wallet, forced himself on Chantal, then went back to his car and ripped up a parking ticket.
Bob's heart pounded as he highlighted the new material, for he didn't care where the damned stuff came from. It was out of here!
He uttered an imprecation as he banged the delete key so hard his index finger ached. Nothing happened. Tears began to flow as he stared at the awful words, now white letters against a black background. He flipped the power switch on his computer and went to bed, not caring about the improper shutdown.
The next evening, he discovered that the computer hadn't shut down after all, and twenty new pages had appeared. He cringed as he read the last paragraph.
Mack took a last deep drag on his cigarette and crushed it into the pavement with his heel. Vapor lamps filled the parking lot with jaundiced cones of light as Franco's sinister figure approached slowly from his car. There was only one way to resolve this conflict peacefully, and Mack wasn't going to bother.
He shot Franco between the eyes.
Bob quickly found that the delete key still didn't work, nor did saving the novel as a new file with a new name. He tried a couple of other tricks to no avail. Should he start the novel all over again? Maybe he could print it out and then retype it in a new file. He couldn't bear the thought of all that extra work. He decided to give his novel a rest for a few days.
At the next writer's group meeting, Bob dug into Joan's artichoke dip, using a broken Frito as a shovel. She was new. "So who's this Mack guy you've been foisting off on the group, Bob? Are you reading any of that stuff tonight?"
"No, but I have been writing," he lied. "It just needs some polish before I read it at group."
"You look kind of freaked out," Joan said, and Bob changed the subject.
Suddenly, Bob's computer seemed perfectly fine. After two weeks the file had finally closed, e-mails started appearing again, and he could use his word processor. He surely didn't recall naming his novel SCHIZO, but still he felt an odd satisfaction scrolling down and seeing that lovely phrase, "THE END."
A couple of days later, he received a fat envelope in the mail. The return address was a publisher's. He ripped open the envelope and read the letter.
Thank you for sending us SCHIZO, it read. We find your manuscript utterly without redeeming social value. Only idiots, social misfits, and people who read with their lips will find it remotely entertaining. Happily, that is our market. We will pay you a $100,000 advance upon signing the enclosed contract. In exchange for this advance and royalties, you will write a series of ten Mack books, with deliverable dates every two weeks.
Bob smiled. Why not? He thought. They write themselves.
About the author:
I am a retired technical writer whose stories have appeared in Rosebud and Calliope magazines. My six novels have appeared on my desktop computer, and I have book signings in my dreams. This year, my wife and I plan to move from New England to New Mexico.
© 2011 Word Riot